Updated on 06.05.14

Talk About Your Money, Especially with Your Partner (9/365)

Trent Hamm

For the first two years of our marriage, Sarah and I barely spoke to each other about money. We’d touch base with each other just enough to make sure the bills were paid, and that’s about all.

“Honey, did you drop off the rent check?” “I took care of the bills for this month.” “Do you have your wallet handy to cover the bill?”

Comments like these were the extent of our communication about money. We just trusted that the other person had their money under control and never really bothered to investigate it further.

We never had a plan for the future. We never had a joint checking account. We never had a cohesive idea of what our retirement might look like.

Is it really any surprise that our finances bottomed out?

Talk About Your Money, Especially with Your Partner (9/365)

One of the first things Sarah and I did once we really began to grasp our situation was to sit down and have a long chat about our money and our future. What did we want out of our lives? Were we ever going to buy a house? Were we ever going to retire? Were we ever going to dig out of our debt hole?

It was from that initial conversation – and many more that followed it – that a cohesive plan for our finances came together. We came up with a plan that suited us for buying a house (do everything we could to save for a down payment until a second child forced our hand and forced us out of our tiny apartment). We came up with a joint plan for retirement.

We started talking about other life goals in a much more concrete fashion, too. We planned carefully for a second and, later, a third child. We agreed that I should devote a significant amount of spare time to writing (although The Simple Dollar took us completely by surprise).

In short, we constructed the scaffolding of the life we have built together. All it took was a conversation about money to get things going.

What did it take to get the ball started? It took one of us (me) to simply get the ball rolling. The biggest key was that I assigned no blame for the situation we were in. Any blame that was out there, I placed directly on my own shoulders, even if I felt it was a shared blame. If you start out a discussion like this with accusations, you’re not going to get very far.

Another key element was to stick with numbers. When we talked about money, we didn’t say things like “I think we can afford it.” We got out our checking account balance and our bills and started calculating to see if we really could afford it.

The final essential element was honesty. I had not really revealed the extent of our credit card debt to Sarah, as I had been “taking care” of that bill for a year. When it was all laid out there, she was upset for a while, but then it became clear to both of us that if we have all of the cards out there on the table and are being fully honest, we can actually solve this problem together.

There’s another key element to all of this. Money talks aren’t just useful with your partner. There is a lot of benefit to talking financial issues over with trusted friends, close family members, and other people around you. You don’t ever have to reveal your full financial picture, but talking about the challenges of debt reduction, great frugality ideas, and other such issues can be a great way to not only learn new ideas, but to relieve the burden of dealing with such issues through conversation.

I have quite a few people that I talk to about various aspects of our financial life. I have a small business friend who often discusses taxes and tax opportunities with me. I often trade frugality tips with various friends and family members. I have another friend with which I’ve discussed retirement planning many times. All of these people have proven invaluable in getting my finances in better shape. Each of them started very tentatively (mostly because I was uncomfortable talking about it), but each grew into a valuable series of conversations for all parties involved.

If you’re dealing with money challenges, don’t bottle them up inside of you. Conversation about them lets you relieve some stress, plus it often opens the road to solutions to those problems. That’s a double win.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book 365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. valleycat1 says:

    Good article – money problems are one of the major reasons for divorce, possibly because not enough people do this.

    We sit down together at least once a year & go over the budget, investments, plans for the next few years etc. Most of our income is from farming one crop, so our money picture for the year falls into place as we find out what that income will be. And at any time during the year either of us will raise a question or suggest we need to do a quick re-visit if things change or aren’t working the way we’d expected. Going from being single to being part of a couple requires re-thinking spending and budgeting habits & developing ways to keep track of what each other is doing, positive & negative.

  2. Adam P says:

    Money and couples is a great topic.

    I’m 35 now, and in a long term but not yet living together (or ready to) relationship of 1 year and 6 months. I’m sure at some point when/if moving in together we’ll need to do the big discussion on finances. In the meanwhile I’ve done my part to set him up with a proper pension contribution and index fund investing etc.

    Something I see more of is couples coming together without kids later in life when already very independent financially; and sometimes with couples who have huge disparity in income and net worth. When in the past it was common to get together as Trent and Sarah did when you’re quite young and start from very little (or going back further, to when men were breadwinners and women didn’t work or earned very little).

    Now you can have two people meeting in their late 30s and starting a family together then, already with very different financial situations. Merging those two together can be difficult.

  3. jan says:

    This GREAT advice. Too many people don’t/won’t/can’t talk about money issues.

  4. Other Jonathan says:

    My wife and I get a lot of joy and value in discussing our finances. At this stage in our lives (age 27) we have big dreams and big plans and we love talking about our strategies for reaching those goals. It definitely helps that we have pretty much the same mindsets regarding spending, saving, giving, and investing.

  5. Roberta says:

    Afer more than 50 years of living, several adult romantic relationships which ended in various ways for various reasons, one (ongoing) successful and happy marriage, four children and three professional careers, it is possible that we have some life experience and useful information to share with your other readers.

    If you (jointly) are potentially fertile and aren’t ready to discuss every aspect of whether or how you’d raise a potential child, you aren’t ready to be physically intimate with someone.

    If you (jointly) can’t discuss every aspect of earning, saving, spending, and investing money, you aren’t ready to be financially intimate with someone.

    If we’d been that smart when we were a lot younger, we’d be a lot better off financially than we are now.

  6. Alice says:

    I liked this photo! Can’t figure out what sort of relationship these folks have, or even where they are, but at least for me, it illustrates the idea of joint finances in a fun way. (I know it’s most likely staged, but I liked that it was not just two people who obviously looked to be a couple).

  7. Aaron says:

    Totally agree Trent. Secrecy in marriage with regards to money is a recipe for serious trouble. You need to be open/honest and lay it all out there. And, no hiding money! :)

  8. I recommend reading “Your Money or Your Life.” It really helped me when my husband and I comingled our finances. It asks questions and prompts discussions to help you get on the same page. It works through setting goals and a financial life plan. I give it to all my friends at their bridal showers!

  9. deRuiter says:

    Sometimes you can talk about money to the wrong person. Remember the author’s story of his childhood? He saved up thousands of aluminum beverage cans in a shed near his house to earn money for a toy, and dragged his relatives / friends / whomever to see his stash of cans. When the author and his father went to bag up all the cans and take them to recycle for cash, THE CANS WERE GONE. If the author had resisted talking about money (the cans) he would have not had his money (cans) stolen. Discussions of how to save money, structure taxes, be frugal are fine, but there are some things you don’t say.

  10. Snowy Heron says:

    Good article. However, sometimes (in my case, especially!)one partner is so uninterested in discussing finances to be almost allergic to any conversations about it. My husband is not a frivolous spender or anything, but he cannot stand to discuss money issues. In the last few years I realized that his mother is the same way so this may be genetic.

    If anyone else has this kind of a situation, please know that one of you needs to take an interest in your finances. If neither of you will, your ship will be rudderless and you will end up grounded on the shoals of debt and poverty.

    I would really like my husband to be more interested in our finances, and he is not an impediment to good financial management, but if you can’t interest your partner in it, you really need to do it yourself. Even if you don’t find it to be a natural skill, you can learn.

  11. valleycat1 says:

    #10 Snowy Heron – I’m the one in our family who doesn’t really like to talk finances or deal with them day-to-day other than keeping spending within the limits we’ve set (& I do pay all the household bills & keep them on schedule). Fortunately my spouse likes to research investments and works well with our financial advisor to keep us in good shape.

    I have found it helps me feel more secure when we at least have the annual discussion to revisit what direction we’re heading, what major expenses we anticipate and can plan for, and how our assets compare to where we were the year before.

  12. kc says:

    Well Trent, I was wrong. :-0

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